Sunday, January 25, 2009

Long Train Running

Before coming out to Mauritania one of its main draws for me was the legendary train that carries iron ore from the northern mines at Zouerat to the port at Nouadhibu. Not only is it in the running for the mantle of longest/heaviest train in the world but you can catch a ride on one train a day which has a single passenger car stuck on its end like an afterthought. Of course, this being Africa, people don't stick to the passenger car and it is possible to ride atop the ore for free. But I decided against this as it would be potentially very cold, dusty and highly uncomfortable. Sometimes I hate it when I'm so right.

When I arrived in Choum, one of only three places the train stops, I was told that the train would come at 6pm. I sat myself down roughly where I thought the passenger car would be (there are no signs, no-one else was waiting and I had no idea where exactly it would stop) and began to wait. 6pm came and went, the sun set and it got very dark. I was getting a bit apprehensive and so decided to return to town where hopefully there would be other people waiting. The town was deserted and so rather than wander aimlessly I decided to wait there where there was at least some light. The train crept in so quietly that it had almost stopped before I knew it. I rushed up and realised that I was at the wrong end and that the passenger car was up to 3km away further down the track. There was no way I was going to run down there in the dark with my backpack - I didn't want to run the risk of missing the train entirely and having to spend a whole day in Choum, which, to put it mildly, is a shithole. I saw an ore wagon with a light moving on top and made my way to it and climbed aboard, thinking that there is safety in numbers. I was hauled up the last couple of feet into the wagon and was immediately surprised by the iron ore itself, which was ground to a fine, black dust, like soft sand. There wasn't much time for introductions as everyone was hollowing out little niches for themselves to shelter from the wind that would come on the journey and so I did the same. Then I pulled my sleeping bag out, set my back pack vertically to act as a windbreak and backrest, wrapped my keffiyeh totally around my face so that I could barely see and buried myself in my sleeping bag. Up until now I had been somewhat regretting bringing a 3 season bag which has been a little too warm for Malian nights, but it certainly helped make the train journey at least bearable. The combination of the wind, chilly desert night and the ore and metal wagon which suck heat away from you make the trip very cold indeed if you are not properly prepared. Luckily I was able to get a few hours fitful sleep. The other discomfort is the sand and dust that fly everywhere and make it hard to see and breathe without a proper face covering.

In the end the journey 'only' took 15 hours (the train has an average speed of a little over 20km/h) before we trundled into Nouadhibu, Mauritania's main port. In the morning light I could see that the train was disappointingly short, only about a mile long and composed of about 120 wagons. But it was still an experience; one I was glad, in retrospect to have experienced, survived unscathed, and certainly wasn't planning on doing again! The town is situated in the middle of a long peninsula in the far north of the country, but the iron ore plant is at the tip. So I saw the town sail past as we continued past to the plant which resembles some dystopian, post-apocalyptic Hollywood movie set. Mad Max would feel right at home. Huge machines clank and whirr amid mountains of ore, rusted wagons litter the landscape like rotting carcases and the plant is a confusing jumble of pipes that reaches to the sky. Once I made it to the town I was glad to have found a CouchSurfing contact - another American Peace Corps volunteer called Eli. I was even more glad that he had a hot shower. After I had got most of the ore dust out of my hair and ears and off my skin I was ready to check out my new surroundings. Nouadhibu is a strange town. It is more cosmopolitan than other places in Mauritania, even Nouakchott, and the ever-present Moorish boubou (the national dress worn by most Moors both white and black, it is basically a large, cotton poncho - either white, light or dark blue - sown together at the bottom) is less evident. There is also a large expat community, both European and black African, as this is a popular jumping off point for attempting to reach the Canary Islands (and therefore the European Union). There are no real sights as such, but I was fascinated by a collection of rusting hulks in the bay just south of the port. Apparently they were given by the European Union to the Mauritanian government to help develop the fishing industry but they were never used. Instead they have just been left to rot and serve as a source of scrap metal. There are two stories as to the reason: either it was to collect the insurance money, or that the government didn't bother training anyone in their use and so they were just left. Either way it is a sad example of good intentions going to waste.

Tomorrow I head north to Morocco as my Mauritanian visa expires (and I only have 6 days to get to Marrakesh). My one regret is that I have been unable to visit the Banc d'Arguin national park which lies between Nouakchott and Nouadhibu. In winter the bay and its rich waters is home to the largest concentration of migrating birds in the world. Over 7 million birds including terns, plovers, spoonbills, herons and many more.

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